MOST of us take water for granted – whether we use it for drinking, cooking, bathing, washing clothes and utensils or watering plants. Water is also used – on our behalf – by farmers to grow the crops and animals we eat to live, and by other industries that produce goods we consume. But perhaps, to mark World Water Day (March 22), we should look at this precious, life-giving natural resource with fresh eyes, give it the respect and value it deserves, and be mindful of how we use it – and how others use it for our benefit.  

I certainly have in the last few weeks. To escape the urban chaos of Bangalore, including its impending water crisis widely discussed in the media, I recently moved to Goa. Blessed with 11 rivers that flow into the Arabian Sea – the western border of India’s smallest state – and an abundant monsoon, in Goa there is ‘water, water everywhere…’ or so I thought. 

Water supply problem

So imagine my horror when, at a friend’s, I met a visiting non-resident Indian owner of a flat in an upmarket north Goa village who bitterly complained of being sold an apartment in a building without a water connection! And that to alleviate this engineered ‘water problem’ he had to buy tankards of water of which, ironically, there was no dearth in supply.

Water supply in many states in India is a huge problem that needs attention on world water day

Inured to the demands of development and progress, this is a microscopic example of how casually and callously we have begun to treat a very basic necessity. In this case, the owner for not even questioning the source of water supply for the flat he had bought and assuming it is in place; the seller for avoiding the subject of water supply altogether; and the authorities for granting a completion certificate (I am presuming the buyer’s lawyer would have checked there is one) for a property without a well or a connection to the municipal water supply. 

Control of water

This World Water Day, let’s step back a bit. Okay a lot, about 4,500 years to the Indus Valley Civilization and Mohenjo Daro, one of the world’s earliest known cities built on modern India’s doorstep. Besides being constructed on the banks of the magnificent river Indus, this ancient city’s most remarkable features unearthed by archaeologists in the last century are the 700+ wells and its drainage and bathing systems – including the public Great Bath – for an estimated 40,000 residents. 

In a 2009 National Geographic article on the marvel that is Mohenjo Daro, the opening paragraph emphasises the importance its designers lay on water supply: “A well-planned street grid and an elaborate drainage system hint that the occupants of the ancient Indus civilization city of Mohenjo Daro were skilled urban planners with a reverence for the control of water [italics mine].” Thousands of years later, why have we seemingly lost this control altogether?

There are some easy targets to blame. 1) Climate change, playing havoc with weather systems and creating droughts and floods in equal measure 2) Population explosion, increasing the demand on decreasing natural resources 3) Poor water management, from leaky pipes and no pipes to water-hungry agriculture and industry in arid regions and uncontrolled pollution. While there are other reasons, of course, these are three major ones, and all of them can be in our control.

Global crisis

In India, we are blessed with abundant natural water resources with oceans in the south, snow-peaked mountains in the north, 400+ rivers big and small, many more lakes, and a monsoon season. Yet more than half the population is water stressed, 85% of our surface water is polluted, and we only harvest 8% of rainfall.  Add to that, the 20 million borewells (up from just one million 50 years ago) which are contributing to India’s rapidly depleting groundwater – the largest guzzler of groundwater in the world – and the country is facing the worst water crisis in its history, according to a 2018 report by NITI Aayog, the government’s public policy think tank. It’s no surprise then that 42,000 schools still don’t have drinking water, and 15,000 have no toilets.

In India water scarcity has started already in many parts of the country

But India is not alone. The rest of the world too is seriously off track in meeting its Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 promising everyone will have safely managed water supply and sanitation by 2030. To address this and take action on World Water Day, the United Nations is holding a Water Conference in New York (March 22-24) – the first event of its kind since 1977 – to try and ensure that the billions of people and countless schools, businesses, healthcare centres, farms and factories are no longer held back because their human rights to water and sanitation have not been fulfilled.

Injustice and water

Just like the angry NRI in Goa who bought a flat in good faith to find it had no water supply faced an injustice, the women who queue up in the drought-prone region of Maharashtra’s Marathwada to buy drinking water for up to ₹1 per litre face an injustice when beer and alcohol units in the same area pay four paise and use 5 million litres daily. At both ends of the social spectrum, the Goa NRI and the Marathwada women have been robbed of their human right to water and sanitation – an injustice that we can all be mindful of and pledge to overturn this World Water Day. 

Water injustice should be addressed on World Water Day

Founder-editor of People’s Archive of Rural India and award-winning journalist P. Sainath, spoke of the complex problem of water at the India Today Conclave in 2019 and disagrees that it is a ‘human’ right as outlined by the UN. 

He said: “Declare water as a basic fundamental right, embedded in the Constitution, I don’t say human right. We share this planet with millions of other species that drink water and are part of the ecosystem that sustains us. Uruguay, a tiny country of three million people, had a referendum in 2004 where they declared that water was a nature’s resource to be shared by everyone and could not be privatised. Water is an incredibly complex problem, try and understand it for the political, economic, social, cultural issue it is – don’t try to simplify it.” 

The Earth is known as the Water Planet, the only known one of its kind in the universe and every living thing needs this liquid fuel to survive. But it is up to us humans to pay heed to the red flags of danger and crisis and take action by changing the way we use, consume and manage water in our lives. Make a start today – make World Water Day your watershed moment.

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